The 5th Wave
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Reznik always starts out slow and soft and builds to a big finish, the better to lull you into thinking he might be an actual human being.
“Well, what do we have here? What have they sent us from central casting—is this a hobbit? Are you a magical creature from a storybook realm come to enchant me with your dark magic?”
Reznik was just getting warmed up, and already the kid was fighting back tears. Fresh off the bus after going through God-knows-what on the outside, and here’s this crazy middle-aged man pouncing on him. I wondered how he was processing Reznik—or any of this craziness they call Camp Haven. I’m still trying to deal, and I’m a lot older than five.
“Oh, this is cute. This is so precious, I think I might cry! Dear God, I’ve dunked chicken nuggets bigger than you in my little plastic cup of spicy barbecue sauce!”
Ratcheting up the volume as he brought his face closer to the kid’s. And the kid holding up surprisingly well, flinching, eyes darting back and forth, but not moving an inch when I knew he must be thinking about taking off across the yard, just running until he couldn’t run anymore.
“What’s your story, Private Nugget? Have you lost your mommy? Do you want to go home? I know! Let’s close our eyes and make a wish and maybe Mommy will come and take us all home! Wouldn’t that be nice, Private Nugget?”
And the kid nodded eagerly, like Reznik had asked the question he’d been waiting to hear. Finally, somebody got to the point! Lifting up his big teddy-bear eyes into the drill sergeant’s beady ones…it was enough to break your heart. It was enough to make you scream.
But you don’t scream. You stand perfectly still, eyes forward, hands at your sides, chest out, heart breaking, watching it out of the corner of your eye while something comes loose inside you, uncoiling like a rattlesnake striking. Something you’ve been holding in for a long time as the pressure built. You don’t know when it’s going to blow, you can’t predict it, and when it happens there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
“Leave him alone.”
Reznik whipped around. No one made a sound, but you could hear the inward gasp. On the other side of the line, Flintstone’s eyes were wide; he couldn’t believe what I just did. I couldn’t, either.
“Who said that? Which one of you scum-sucking maggots just signed his own death warrant?”
Striding down the line, face red with fury, hands clinched into fists, knuckles bone white.
“Nobody, huh? Well, I’m going to fall on my knees and cover my head, because the Lord God his holy self has spoken to me from on high!”
He stopped in front of Tank, who was sweating through his jumpsuit though it was about forty degrees outside. “Was it you, puckerhole? I will tear your arms off!” He brought his fist back to punch Tank in the groin.
Cue the idiot.
“Sir, I said it, sir!” I shouted.
Reznik’s about-face was slow this time. His journey over to me took a thousand years. In the distance, a crow’s harsh call, but that was the only sound I heard.
He stopped just inside my range of vision, not directly in front of me, and that wasn’t good. I couldn’t turn toward him. I had to keep my eyes forward. Worst of all, I couldn’t see his hands; I wouldn’t know when—or where—the blow would land, which meant I wouldn’t know when to brace for it.
“So Private Zombie is giving the orders now,” Reznik said, so softly I could barely hear him. “Private Zombie is Squad Fifty-three’s very own catcher in the fucking rye. Private Zombie, I think I have a crush on you. You make me weak in the knees. You make me hate my own mother for giving birth to a male child, so now it’s impossible for me to have your babies.”
Where was it going to land? My knees? My crotch? Probably the stomach; Reznik has a soft spot for stomachs.
Nope. It was a chop to my Adam’s apple with the side of his hand. I staggered backward, fighting to stay upright, fighting to keep my hands at my sides, not going to give him the satisfaction, not going to give him an excuse to hit me again. The yard and the barracks were ringing, then jiggled and melted a little as my eyes filled with tears—of pain, sure, but of something else, too.
“Sir, he’s just a little kid, sir,” I choked out.
“Private Zombie, you have two seconds, exactly two seconds, to seal that sewer pipe posing as a mouth, or I will incinerate your ass with the rest of the infested alien sons of bitches!”
He took a deep breath, revving up for the next verbal barrage. Having completely lost my mind, I opened my mouth and let the words come out. I’ll be honest: Part of me was filled with relief and something that felt a hell of a lot like joy. I had kept the hate inside for too long.
“Then the senior drill instructor should do it, sir! The private really doesn’t care, sir! Just—just leave the kid alone.”
Total silence. Even the crow stopped fussing. The rest of the squad had stopped breathing. I knew what they were thinking. We’d all heard the story about the lippy recruit and the “accident” on the obstacle course that put him in the hospital for three weeks. And the other story about the quiet ten-year-old who they found in the showers strung up with an extension cord. Suicide, the doctor said. A lot of people weren’t so sure.
Reznik didn’t move. “Private Zombie, who is your squad leader?”
“Sir, the private’s squad leader is Private Flintstone, sir!”
“Private Flintstone, front and center!” Reznik barked. Flint took one step forward and snapped off a salute. His unibrow jiggled with tension. “Private Flintstone, you’re fired. Private Zombie is now squad leader. Private Zombie is ignorant and ugly, but he is not soft.” I could feel Reznik’s eyes boring into my face. “Private Zombie, what happened to your baby sister?”
I blinked. Twice. Trying not to show anything. My voice cracked a little when I answered, though. “Sir, the private’s sister is dead, sir!”
“Because you ran like a chickenshit!”
“Sir, the private ran like a chickenshit, sir!”
“But you’re not running now, are you, Private Zombie? Are you?”
“Sir, no, sir!”
He stepped back. Something flashed across his face. An expression I’d never seen before. It couldn’t be, of course, but it looked a lot like respect.
“Private Nugget, front and center!”
The newbie didn’t move until Poundcake gave him a poke in the back. He was crying. He didn’t want to, he was trying to choke it back, but dear Jesus, what little kid wouldn’t be crying by that point? Your old life barfs you out and this is where you land?
“Private Nugget, Private Zombie is your squad leader, and you will bunk with him. You will learn from him. He will teach you how to walk. He will teach you how to talk. He will teach you how to think. He will be the big brother you never had. Do you read me, Private Nugget?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” The tiny voice shrill and squeaky, but he got the rules down, and quickly.
And that’s how it began.
HERE’S A TYPICAL day in the atypical new reality of Camp Haven.
5:00 A.M.: Reveille and wash up. Dress and prep bunks for inspection.
5:10 A.M.: Fall in. Reznik inspects our billets. Finds a wrinkle in someone’s sheet. Screams for twenty minutes. Then picks another recruit at random and screams for another twenty for no real reason. Then three laps around the yard freezing our asses off, me urging Oompa and Nugget to keep up or I get to run another lap as the last man to finish. The frozen ground beneath our boots. Our breaths frosting in the air. The twin columns of black smoke from the power plant rising beyond the airfield and the rumble of buses pulling out of the main gate.
6:30 A.M.: Chow in the crowded mess hall that smells faintly like soured milk, reminding me of the plague and the fact that once upon a time I thought about just three things—cars, football, and girls, in that order. I help Nugget with his tray, urging him to eat because, if he doesn’t eat, boot camp will kill him. Those are my exact words: Boot camp will kill you. Tank and Flintstone laugh at me mothering Nugget. Already calling me Nugget’s Nanna. Screw them. After chow we check out the leaderboard. Every morning the scores from the previous day are posted on a big board outside the mess hall. Points for marksmanship. Points for best times on the obstacle course, the air raid drills, the two-mile runs. The top four squads will graduate at the end of November, and the competition is fierce. Our squad’s been stuck in tenth place for weeks. Tenth isn’t bad, but it’s not good enough.
7:30 A.M.: Training. Weapons. Hand-to-hand. Basic wilderness survival. Basic urban survival. Recon. Communications. My favorite is survival training. That memorable session where we had to drink our own urine.
12:00 P.M.: Noon chow. Some mystery meat between hard crusts of bread. Dumbo, whose jokes are as tasteless as his ears are big, cracks that we’re not incinerating the infested bodies but grinding them up to feed the troops. I have to pull Teacup off him before she smacks his head with a tray. Nugget stares at his burger like it might jump off his plate and bite his face. Thanks, Dumbo. The kid’s skinny enough as it is.
1:00 P.M.: More training. Mostly on the firing range. Nugget is issued a stick for a rifle and fires pretend rounds while we fire real ones into life-size plywood cutouts. The crack of the M16s. The screech of plywood being shredded. Poundcake earns a perfect score; I’m the worst shot in the squad. I pretend the cutout is Reznik, hoping that will improve my aim. It doesn’t.
5:00 P.M.: Evening chow. Canned meat, canned peas, canned fruit. Nugget pushes his food around and then bursts into tears. The squad glares at me. Nugget is my responsibility. If Reznik comes down on us for conduct unbefitting, there’s hell to pay, and I’m picking up the tab. Extra push-ups, reduced rations—he could even deduct some points. Nothing matters but getting through basic with enough points to graduate, get out into the field, rid ourselves of Reznik. Across the table, Flintstone is glowering at me from beneath the unibrow. He’s pissed at Nugget, but more pissed at me for taking his job. Not that I asked for squad leader. He came at me after that day and growled, “I don’t care what you are now, I’m gonna make sergeant when we graduate.” And I’m like, “More power to you, Flint.” The idea of my leading a unit into combat is ludicrous. Meanwhile, nothing I say calms Nugget down. He keeps going on about his sister. About how she promised to come for him. I wonder why the commander would stick a little kid who can’t even lift a rifle into our squad. If Wonderland winnowed out the best fighters, what sort of profile did this little guy produce?
6:00 P.M.: Drill instructor Q&A in the barracks, my favorite part of the day, where I get to spend some quality time with my favorite person in the whole wide world. After informing us what worthless piles of desiccated rat feces we are, Reznik opens the floor for questions and concerns.
Most of our questions have to do with the competition. Rules, procedures in case of a tie, rumors about this or that squad cheating. Making the grade is all we can think about. Graduation means active duty, real fighting—a chance to show the ones who died that we had not survived in vain.